How a support group for Black mothers is changing lives for the better
The community of "Our Village" offers many a safe space to share motherhood journeys and experiences.
When Kellee Lewis sought resources to understand changes to her body brought on by pregnancy, she turned to the Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital website.
The Detroit resident, who was three months pregnant in October 2020, found more than just tips to ease into being a first-time mom. She found a lifeline in the Our Village: African American Expectant and New Mom Group at University of Michigan Health.
Our Village is a place for African American expectant and new moms to learn from and support each other. It’s led by its founders, facilitators Melisa Scott, CNM, a nurse midwife and lactation consultant, and LaTresa Wiley, LMSW, former outpatient OB-GYN clinical social worker and current manager of the Children & Women’s Bereavement Program.
During a typical session, women gather, introduce themselves, explain where they are on their motherhood journey and what challenges they may be encountering. Sometimes the challenge is on a topic set by the facilitators, including what's your mission statement for your family or what type of mother do you want to be? Other times, it’s on a difficulty one of the moms is currently having, like teething. Some moms share what they know to help get their fellow mom through her bumpy period, while others listen and learn from the moms who have previously walked that path.
“LaTresa and I created this for Black women to have their own space to talk about childbirth or talk about their life, but also to not feel guarded and be able to feel like they could just be open and just have this safe space,” Scott explained.
“For the most part, Black women are going into predominantly white spaces in terms of medical care providers,” Wiley said. “Everything around them is in a space that is predominantly people who don't necessarily look like them, and perhaps may not necessarily know their experience.” This group changes that narrative.
Often, they welcome speakers, including a safe sleeping expert and a yoga teacher, to be a part of the programming. They began Our Village in 2018.
A biweekly treat of camaraderie
Lewis found it online, and she has attended all but one session. She says the speakers are great, but she comes for another reason.
“I come for the camaraderie,” Lewis said. “I like to hear every lady’s story. I look forward to it. It’s a relief, a treat and it’s always an outlet. For everyone to look like me, that’s a double bonus.”
Our Village meets, via Zoom, every other Thursday from 3–4 p.m. Some gatherings have been as small as three people while others have been as big as 18. The average is about nine.
Before the pandemic, the group would gather at the University of Michigan Health East Ann Arbor Health Center and enjoy a meal. Children are welcome.
“By being virtual, we have moms that we wouldn’t normally have access to,” Scott said. They have a few from Detroit and one from as far away as Chicago.
It’s easy to bond over Zoom considering the circumstances, says Whitney Williams of Ypsilanti, who has a 19-month-old son and is 33 weeks pregnant with another child. She learned about the group from Wiley, her former coworker.
“To be able to come together with the other Black and brown faces of moms who are experiencing some similar challenges is very reassuring for us particularly since we are giving birth or becoming moms during a pandemic, which hasn’t happened in 100 years,” Williams said. “It created a sense of community, understanding, pause and peace. It gave me everything that I needed in the moment.”
Tackling tough subjects
Williams is grateful that the group addresses topics other groups avoid.
In 2020, she recalls the conversation about racism after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and stories of police brutality came to light. “I was terrified of having a young Black boy,” Williams said. “We talked about what does it mean to be a Black mother of a Black boy, and how we build our own resilience.”
“I think the other part that goes without saying is we don't have to explain what it’s like to be a Black mother in the health care system or raising black children in America. It's just something that we already know.”
Setting boundaries or dealing with family is a frequent conversation because Black moms often have several generations weighing in on their parenting style.
“They may be a source of support for you, but you can’t have the conversation with them because they also may be the source of the problem,” Williams said.
Finding friends and inspiration
As a traveling nurse who relocated to Ypsilanti from Maryland, Deanna Harris was hoping to connect with more women of color. That goal popped into her mind when her midwife, Scott, told her about Our Village right before Harris gave birth to her now 2 ½-year-old daughter, Savannah. She’s attended class both in person and, once the pandemic hit, virtually.
“I think at first it started out as something for me, because I was probably being selfish at the time, but then the group became so much more than that,” Harris said.
Harris had tried other new mom groups but none that targeted women of color. “I got some good information from them, but I just didn’t see myself in those groups,” she said.
At Our Village, she discovered new thoughts on what and how to feed Savannah that went beyond the baby food jars in the grocery aisles. A recent gathering addressed toys for emergent walkers and other must-haves for a new child.
Harris shares her mantra at every session: “Mom your way.” By doing so, she reminds others to “take recommendations that only fit your lifestyle and your routine, but also ones that fit your child’s temperament,” she says. She learned that after discovering how much Savannah disliked the baby swing yet loved the vibrating bouncy seat that no one recommended.
While Harris’ friendship circle has expanded, it’s had a few pandemic setbacks. While she’s set up some dates to meet Our Village participants outside of regular sessions, work and COVID-19 scares from other participants prevented the in-person gatherings. Instead, she continues to draw inspiration from every Our Village session.
“This group is needed because it proves that women of color can do it all,” Harris said. “What I like about it is that these women of color are all educated, some are entrepreneurs, some are trying to finish up things they started before becoming a mom and, somehow, they figure it all out and still provide for their family. That’s inspiring.”